The amount of disposable face masks littered in the environment increased by nearly 9,000 percent from March to October 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
That is the finding of a new study published in Nature Sustainability December 9, which used an app to track the emergence of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) pollution during the first 14 months of the pandemic in 11 countries.
“We found that littered masks had an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in a more than 80-fold increase by October 2020,” lead researcher Dr. Keiron Roberts, Lecturer in Sustainability and the Built Environment at the University of Portsmouth, said in a press release. “There is a clear need to ensure that requiring the use of these items is accompanied with education campaigns to limit their release into the environment.”
The study is the latest to note the emergence of PPE pollution, particularly face masks, as a new type of litter. A November study, for example, found that there are nearly 29,000 tons of COVID-19 related plastic now floating in the ocean.
The new research was unique in that it compared PPE litter with government policies such as mask mandates. What the study found was that the rise in face mask litter followed an increase in national mask mandates and recommendations from the World Health Organization.
"This might be stating the obvious, but it's the first time we've been able to evidence it," Roberts told Australia’s ABC News.
In comparison, litter from gloves and wipes rose from 0.2 percent of litter to 0.4 percent of litter during the beginning of the pandemic, but then declined. Gloves especially decreased with the emergence of mask mandates, the study authors wrote.
To draw their conclusions, the researchers used two digital databases: the “COVID-19 Government Response Tracker” and the app “Litterati,” which allows users to record the litter they collect.
"We wondered how we could do a study that's global without actually leaving our bedroom," Roberts told ABC News.
Overall, the researchers said there were three main concerns about PPE litter, according to the press release:
1. Short-term concerns that the masks would spread the disease further and cause sewer blockages.
2. Medium-term concerns that the new litter would harm wildlife through entanglement or smothering smaller organisms.
3. Long-term concerns that the litter would attach to other pollutants and help them spread in the environment. Further, any PPE made from plastic could break down into microplastics and work its way up the food chain.
The researchers called on governments to announce policies for COVID-19 waste disposal along with mask mandates.
“Despite millions of people being told to use face masks, little guidance was given on how to dispose of them or recycle them safely,” professor Steve Fletcher, director of Revolution Plastics at the University of Portsmouth, but not a study author, said in the press release. “Without better disposal practices, an environmental disaster is looming. The majority of masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, and if discarded can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years. This means they can have a number of impacts on the environment and people.”
In response, the UK government agreed that it was important to find ways to properly dispose of face masks.
“Our priority is rightly to protect public health during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but this does not dilute our existing commitments to tackling single-use plastics and combating litter,” a spokeswoman from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told BBC News. "It is vital we all dispose of our waste – including face coverings and other PPE – in the correct manner. Face coverings should be disposed of in normal waste bins."
Overall, the study authors observed more than two million pieces of PPE litter collected in the 11 countries it studied.
“We need to avoid this pandemic litter becoming a lasting legacy,” Roberts said in the press release.